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My fellow white Jews: This is not our shiva

While Black Jews began to mourn, Jewish media fixated on the fact that the gunman’s screed was explicitly antisemitic.

My mother taught me that a shiva is not a party. We are not there for the food. We are not there to catch up with our friends. We are there for a specific purpose: to comfort the mourners. To tend to the needs the grieving cannot do for themselves. To be a presence and a support so that we all know, in the tenderest moments of loss, that we are not alone.

A shiva isn’t easy and it takes time, observation, example-setting and correction before one really knows how to behave appropriately. The needs of the mourners are always at the center of our concern, and we bend our own needs and desires around them. It might be appropriate to eat, or to catch up with friends, but there’s a time and a place and a way to do it that honors the purpose of the gathering.

And it varies by context, though rabbinic opinions may differ: Some mourners prefer a joyous celebration of the beloved’s life, and the right thing to do is join in. (On the Savannah side of my family, if a cousin turns up at the shiva with a mason jar of bathtub moonshine, you drink the moonshine.)

The point is: Unless you are the mourner, it’s not your shiva. You show up, and you follow their lead.

I thought about this lesson as I witnessed the many reactions from our Jewish communities to the murder of 10 Black people in Buffalo,  each a beloved family member. While Black Jews began to mourn, Jewish media fixated on the fact that the gunman’s screed, in addition to the anti-Black racism that motivated the murders, was also explicitly antisemitic.

Of course, this is true. As Political Research Associates, a leading expert in white nationalist movements, put it, “The attack should be understood as an act of political violence” that “ takes Black people in particular, and people of color more generally, as enemies that threaten white existence, and that positions Jews as the secret orchestrators of threats to white people.”

But the reactions from the much of the Jewish world — and, especially, the coverage from Jewish news outlets — made it clear that this attack and the anti-Blackness behind it is important to Jews chiefly because it is tied to antisemitism.

One article in the Forward, for example, began by counting the number of pages in the murderer’s rant devoted to Jews and Black people respectively; its original headline declared: “The gunman killed Black people. But his screed focuses on Jews.” (The headline was later changed.)

The first paragraph in a Jewish Telegraphic Agency article the day after the attack did not even acknowledge that those murdered were Black, but did note that the gunman “allegedly was motivated by a conspiracy theory that has spurred recent deadly attacks on Jews, among others.” And Peter Beinart, who found his own photo in the gunman’s screed and wrote in his Substack newsletter about the role of antisemitism in white nationalist ideology, concluded: “The Buffalo shooter did not kill Jews. But his ideology of racial supremacy threatens us.”

Who is “us”? These articles implicitly reinforce the bright lines drawn by white supremacists between the Jewish and Black communities. Black Jews, who exist wholly in both, and who would be targeted by this ideology of racial supremacy whether antisemitism is mentioned or not, were entirely excluded from the Jewish communal “we.”

This is not a theoretical exercise. My fellow white Jews, this is bad shiva behavior. Instead of supporting the mourners, we are inflicting deep harm and fracturing our Jewish community. “We are mourning the racist murder of 10 Black people,” wrote one prominent Black Jewish leader in a Facebook comment responding to this trend in the Jewish media’s coverage. “How about waiting until we complete shiva before making this a ‘Jews are the bigger target’ competition?”

When we do this, fellow white Jews, we are also damaging our own humanity. It’s up to us to expand our notion of “us” until, as another Black Jewish leader wrote, “your heart breaks for murdered Black folks and their families in the same ways your heart would break if the dead were white and Jewish.”

It is a normal response to try to locate ourselves in a story, and finding a “Jewish angle” is the purview of Jewish news outlets and commentators. But there is a time and a place and a way to do this that honors the moment appropriately. The best coverage named those murdered and made clear that they were targeted for being Black, then helped audiences understand the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Blackness as distinct but connected components of white supremacists’ machinery of division and fear.

Too many Jewish voices, and some Jewish news coverage, continue to relate to both antisemitism and racism as forms of “hatred” rather than as essential elements of what Political Research Associates explains is “a political ideology that defines Blacks — and Jews — as a racial enemy.” Disinformation about a “great replacement” of white Americans by Black and brown people, puppet-mastered by Jews, is now a relatively mainstream view among the political right.

This is rightly terrifying and we’ll need every ounce of our communal, spiritual and human strength to create a future where every one of us, no matter our religion or race, can feel safe walking down the streets of our neighborhoods or through the doors of our holy spaces. This future of racial equity, as Rebecca Pierce wrote after Buffalo in Jewish Currents, will require much more than shared grief.

All the more reason to recognize whose shiva this is.

Black people, including Black Jews, will always be a target of anti-Black racism. That is more than enough reason to consider murderous anti-Black violence worthy of the concern, attention and action of our entire multiracial, multiethnic, global Jewish community. More than enough because freedom and safety for any of us depends on freedom and safety for all of us, no exceptions.

As with shiva, it will take time, observation, example-setting and correction to get this right. But that’s what we do at a shiva. We show up.

To contact the author, email editorial@forward.com.

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